“As a transwoman I have never voted because of the stigma, the discrimination, the lack of respect for my gender identity… because I am an object of laughter. From my point of view, this has not motivated me to vote even though I have the right to vote and to be elected.”
—Carmen, Guatemala City
Carmen* is a Guatemalan transgender woman living in Guatemala City. As a determined activist and committed community leader, Carmen has been fighting for the basic rights and dignity of transgender persons for decades.
She is motivated by her own experiences of hardship and abuse; due to her gender identity, Carmen was rejected by her family, raped and sexually assaulted numerous times, infected with HIV/AIDS at an early age, and forced to migrate to the capital in hope of finding community and better opportunities.
Unfortunately, stories like Carmen’s are far too common. Hundreds of transgender women across the country flee their households with hopes of a better future, only to encounter more discrimination on the urban streets.
From threats to their physical safety and harassment by police officers, to limited access to employment, education, health and housing opportunities — transgender women live in Guatemala’s shadows.
As students from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, we met Carmen while conducting interviews for a USAID project that aims to make Guatemala’s upcoming presidential elections in September more inclusive to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons.
Although transgender persons do have the legal right to vote, the discrepancy between their self-identity and recognized gender on their identification documents leads to discrimination when registering to vote and casting a ballot.
These inequitable situations are what make USAID’s efforts to increase inclusion of transgender persons in electoral processes so significant. By providing a much needed opportunity for the LGBTI community to have a say in the country’s political course later this year as voters and election workers, all Guatemalan voters will be empowered and encouraged to exercise their human rights.
Similar efforts to ensure human rights are happening all over the world. This past Sunday, May 17, was International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia and represents a moment when millions of people around the world mobilize in support of the recognition of human rights for all, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.
The ability for Carmen and her colleagues to cast a ballot has the potential to pave the way towards greater justice and equality, giving a marginalized community hope.
For instance, Maria Elena,* a transgender woman driven to make a living by working in Guatemala City’s sex industry, said: “Beyond being able to exercise our vote, we see this as a means to achieve greater social acceptance and sensitize institutions, so that one day some of my colleagues can run for office themselves.”
Her words underscore the message that voting is not only the affirmation of a person’s voice; it is also the promise of a brighter future to come.
What can be done?
We traveled to Guatemala in January to identify barriers the transgender community faces in being able to participate in elections, and then we examined ways to counter these problems.
During our fieldwork, we spoke with LGBTI community organizers, NGO leaders, government officials and civil society groups to get a better sense of how USAID could best support transgender inclusivity efforts in the upcoming elections.
Our key takeaway was that there are already tools and programming in place to help the transgender community exercise their right to vote. As such, we envision a more comprehensive campaign with components tailored to three electoral cycle periods: pre-electoral phase, electoral phase and post-electoral phase.
The pre-electoral phase would focus on strengthening and building consensus among the country’s LGBTI civil society leaders and allies in order to execute the strategy, building transgender individuals’ confidence and motivation to vote through educational tools and better leaders, increasing voter registration numbers, and planning electoral security and sensitivity trainings in anticipation of election day.
The election phase would focus on promoting inclusivity among political platforms and providing mechanisms to avoid prejudices that may arise from conflicting identity documents and security risks
Finally, the post-electoral phase is meant to continue the momentum by pushing for government accountability, supporting a grassroots movement calling for the legal rights of the transgender community, and solidifying the foundation of the country’s LGBTI civil society organizations.
Only when transgender people like Carmen and Maria Elena are guaranteed the right to vote and treated as equal citizens will Guatemala be closer to achieving justice for all.
*Pseudonyms were used in this piece to protect the identities of research participants.